Pronunciation can often be complex, especially the phonetic script, but you don’t have to be an expert to teach pronunciation well.
1. Find out what your students can’t do
Your students will have different problems with pronunciation depending on their first language. Chinese learners often have problems with vowel sounds and r in words like very. Arabic speakers can often get p and b mixed up, Spanish and Farsi speakers sometimes add an extra e in front of words that begin with an s like speak and Spain so they become espeak and espain. To find out what problems your students have, you can listen to them talking to each other or get them to read a text aloud for the class – note down the problems they have with their pronunciation. You can also check on Google to find out common problems for specific languages.
2. Introduce minimal pairs
Minimal pairs are words that sound almost the same but have a subtle pronunciation difference. Studying them will help them become aware of different vowel sounds and how to pronounce them. Here are some examples of minimal pairs but you can search Google for an exhaustive list!
food / good
Activities with minimal pairs
- Drilling – get students to pronounce the words chorally in class copying your pronunciation or one from a listening text.
- Write minimal pairs on the back of playing cards and ask students to play pelmanism with the pairs that match.
- Check out this great minimal pairs bingo game here
- Have a look at the legendary pronunciation text book Ship or Sheep
3. Remember English is a stress-timed language
Unlike some languages, English places the stress on important words in a sentence and not on others, this is why native speakers can sometimes leave out little words in informal speech, this is called ellipsis e.g. Where you been?
It’s important for students to get the stress right if they are going to sound natural. For example: Where do you live? The stress is on Where and live, do isn’t stressed at all. Here are some examples you could share with your students. Ask them to underline stressed words.
Where do you come from?
I come from New York in the USA.
What languages do you speak?
- Dictate sentences and ask students to mark the words that are stressed.
- Underline the stressed words in a dialogue.
- Say the sentences aloud and then drill the sentences in class chorally.
- Students record the sentences on their smartphones and check their stress.
4. Focus on stress patterns in words
Like sentences, words often have different stress patterns. The easiest way to identify these is by underlining the stressed part of the word. Encourage your students to break words down into syllables, for example beau-ti-ful, ask them to identify where the stressed part of the word is by reading it in different ways: beautiful / beautiful / beautiful. Ask students Which one is correct?– the correct answer is beautiful. When students record new words make sure they also record where the stress sits in the word by underlining the right syllable.
Activities with stress patterns
- Find the stress. Give students a list of words and ask them to use an online dictionary to find the stress. Students can check with a partner before you elicit the right answers,
- Stress pattern snap. Write target words on the back of playing cards in permanent marker. Split the deck and get students in pairs to play snap by matching words that have the same stress patterns.
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5. Listen and read
A great way for students to improve their pronunciation is to listen to a text and notice the way the words are pronounced rather than just listening for meaning. There are lots of stories with audio on YouTube. Ask your students to watch and read some of the stories several times and to comment on the words they learned to pronounce.
6. Listen to repeating speeches
It’s very hard for your students to listen to their own voices when they speak. If you have a quiet space for students to use, you could ask them to use the audio recorder on their smartphones for this activity.
Here’s a speech from the Will Smith film, After Earth. Dictate it to your students and ask them to read it three or four times. Then, they read it aloud and if possible, record it on their smartphones.
“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity Kitai. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice. We are all telling ourselves a story and that day mine changed.”
Students can share their recording with a partner or just read it to their partner if they don’t want to record it. Ask students What things did you say wrong? Could you have said any of the words better?
Ask students to listen to the same speech by Will Smith here: https://youtu.be/7uLOq7QdsZA
Try the same task but with audio that students choose, this could be a famous speech from a film or history. They can read or play recordings to the rest of the class as well as sharing them on your social media page.
7. Use tongue twisters
Finally, tongue twisters can be great fun to check out how well students can pronounce words and sounds. Here are some simple examples:
- A proper cup of coffee in a proper coffee cup.
- I can think of six thin things and of six thick things too.
- She sells seashells on the seashore.
- A fat fly flew through the thick fog.
- Not these things here, but those things there.
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